Whistleblowing is one of those topics that comes up on a regular basis when I give talks to groups of students about responsible conduct of research or professional ethics. So I was interested to hear a piece on NPR yesterday morning that talked about a study that has recently been done showing that our peers tend to have some of the most influence on if we speak up if we see or hear about an ethical violation.
This study conducted at the University of Michigan seemed to show that its not a question of having an ethical supervisor or working for an ethical company, its all about our co-workers. In the study, 100 people were asked to come up with a solution to a problem. Each person was sat down in front of a computer, and told that they were going to be working with other individuals working at separate computers. If the team as a whole got the answer right, they would get a $300 price. Each individual was told not to use the internet to get information to help them solve the problem. As soon as the person sat down, he or she would receive an instant message from a fellow team-member saying that she had found out that she could use her iphone to access the internet undetected....thereby helping them win the cash prize. Some individuals received instant messages from co-workers acting in an ethical way, refusing to go along. Others received instant messages saying "Great, I should have thought of that!" The researchers found that when the fellow team members were ethical, 2/3 of the volunteers reported that there was a problem. When co-workers acted unethically, only 1/3 of the volunteers spoke up.
This study points the way for how we can begin to foster better ethical climates in our workplaces and organizations....as with most things the top-down approach does not seem to be the most effective. As the study suggests, it takes a village to foster ethical conduct.